The most famous figure associated with Christmas festivities is Santa Claus – the pot-bellied, jovial guy in red with a snow-white beard and a booming laugh, who brings gifts to everyone, jingling bells all the way, dashing through the snow in an open sleigh pulled by reindeers. But, did you know that there are other icons symbolizing Christmas around the world? You might be surprised to know that several countries have the tradition of a female gift-giver!
The good-natured female character who brings presents on Christmas Eve, in countries like Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, and Slovakia is known as Christkindl (or “Christ Child”). She is believed to visit Lutheran families and is usually depicted as a beautiful young girl with long, curly blonde hair wearing a crown and angel wings. Christkindl is sometimes a baby cherub. The character comes from the Protestant tradition that Jesus himself delivers presents on Christmas – as opposed to a mythological character like Santa Claus. In Germany, a holiday market and celebration called Christkindlmarkt is held in the city of Nuremberg every year, where a child is chosen to be the Christkindl.
The kind-hearted witch who flies around on a broomstick is believed to bring presents to good children on Christmas in Italy. According to 8th-century folklore, the three wise men who were on their way to see Baby Jesus stopped at La Befana’s house on Christmas Eve. Happy with her hospitality, the magi asked her to come with them to see the child but she refused as she was busy. A few days later, she regretted it and set out to see the child but got lost on the way. As she never found her way to Bethlehem, she is believed to fly over Italy every Christmas Eve (Epiphany on January 5) and give gifts to children and families. Much like Santa Claus, she gives toys and candy to good children and leaves coal or sticks for the naughty ones. She is depicted as an old woman and is believed to sweep the floors of the houses she visits!
Henriette de Montbéliard was a Countess, who lived in France in the 15th century. She is believed to be reincarnated as a fairy called Tante Arie ( Arie – nickname for Henriette, Tante – German for aunt). She is often shown as an old woman with a youthful face who lives in a cave in the mountains. Locals say that she has iron teeth and goose feet (possibly referring to her buckled shoes). She brings presents of fruits and cakes to children on Christmas Eve. Kids eagerly await for the sound of bells, indicating the arrival of her donkey Marion and they leave carrots and turnips for him.
The goddess of agriculture, spinning, and weaving in Germany is called Frau Holle, who brings gifts to kids during Epiphany. Being obsessed with spinning, she is believed to reward hard-working spinners with an extra spindle and punish lazy workers by burning their spindles or breaking the thread. She is welcomed at every home with a bowl of milk with spoons crossed over it and kept outside before the family leaves for church. The position of the spoons rearranged by Frau Holle indicates the fortune for the coming year. She is depicted as a beautiful young woman in white or an old woman who rides with witches. She has different names in other parts of Germany. Locals say that if it snows, it is because she is making her bed and feathers are flying out of it.!
There are a few more women characters who are associated with Christmas, but most of them act like monsters! This includes Frau Gaude of Germany (who brings bad luck), Perchta of Austria (who slits open bellies and stuffs them with straw if they haven’t eaten right), and Grýla of Iceland (a troll who eats naughty children).
Lastly, how can we forget the sweetest Mrs. Santa Claus, who makes cookies with the elves, takes care of the reindeer and prepares toys with her husband.? Without her, we wouldn’t have all these gifts on Christmas!
This year, let us bring a change and be the female Santa Claus – the world sure needs a few !!
Christmas Cheers to all the lovely lady gift-givers!
Written by Deepa Perumal, IT Operations Head, PEAKS Academy